Robert Klein returns to the late-night comedy world that helped create him

June 2, 2017 GMT

NEW YORK — Comedian Robert Klein had some memories from the Ed Sullivan Theater he was eager to share.

“I was here doing Letterman. I did it 42 times.” His ad hoc audience, a trio of twentysomething hair-and-makeup people, nodded and smiled politely, then asked him to shift in his chair.

“I mean, but this is much nicer, what Stephen has done, this whole renovation. All I remember were the rats. It was nothing but rats down here. Can you cover the ear a little more?”

Klein, 75, was in the basement of the landmark New York studio, preparing for a March 31 appearance on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” It was his first time on the program. He’d come to promote “Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg,” a documentary by journalist Marshall Fine that made its premiere on Starz in April and has been re-airing regularly ever since. (The title is an homage to a classic musical bit in which Klein parodies a blues singer.)

“Leg,” which made its premiere at Toronto in 2015 and underwent a distributor shuffle involving the Weinstein Co., is a look at the appeal and influence of the New York comedian who was a longtime late-night fixture (his first of many appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” came in 1968) and cable regular (his first HBO special was in 1975).

Later this month, Klein will be in Norfolk to attend the 2017 Great American Comedy Festival in Carson’s hometown, where he will receive the festival’s annual Johnny Carson Comedy Legend award. Klein also was the festival’s first headliner in its inaugural year of 2008.

Over the years, Klein has pioneered and remained a gold standard of observational comedy. As the Second City veteran shows in the movie via impromptu bits walking around his suburban New York neighborhood — and as many of his acolytes make clear in cutaways — Klein was combining a comic’s wit and a novelist’s eye before any of today’s whippersnappers.

“He changed what it meant to be a comic — this idea of the craft of deconstructing your experience,” Jon Stewart said in the film.

In person, Klein gives a shrug at the idea. “I didn’t necessarily want to do it. But Marshall said, ‘People need to see your charm.’ I don’t know that they do, but ‘OK,’ I said.”

On the way into the Ed Sullivan Theater, he’d showcased that appeal, which can come with a dose of avuncular hamminess. “Let’s do this,” he said, as some fans asked for selfies.

“You know you’re putting photographers out of business,” he said as iPhones flashed. Someone pushed to the front with an actual camera. “You’re old school,” he said and then slipped in a product plug.

“I’ve got a documentary,” he said. “It premieres tomorrow night. On Starz.”

He sidled down to another picture-taker. “Disposable camera! You’re really old school.”

Inside, Klein got situated in a green room and cracked open a beer. His son Allie, a comic in his own right, sat across from him. “Colbert has to explain why he maybe supported Trump,” said Allie Klein, 33, while, on the monitor, the host began welcoming earlier guests.

“No, no, Comedy Central was an act,” Robert Klein said.

The elder comic noticed a guest on the monitor. “Who is that?’ he said of a waxen face in a teal jacket.

“Joey McIntyre, from New Kids on the Block,” Allie Klein replied.

“Who is Joey McIntyre and what is New Kids on the Block?” Klein asked, then shifted gears quickly. “Did you read Maureen Dowd? She’s getting good again.”

“There’s a generation that doesn’t realize how important Robert Klein was — he was speaking to the baby boom generation in a way nobody else had,” documentarian Fine said. “But I also don’t think that kind of comedy ever goes out of style. One after another today you see comedians who think they’re pushing the envelope. And they’re all deeply indebted to what Robert Klein was doing 50 years ago.”

Comic legends are a funny breed; to carry yourself like one is to negate the crackup persona that made you a legend. Klein gets around this problem by telling war stories of his achievements and sprinkling them with what might be called a confident self-deprecation — a manner that touts his achievement even as it questions others.

“I did Johnny so many times. And all those TV pilots,” he said, launching into descriptions of failed pick-ups from past decades. “But I really should write another book.” His memoir of his early days, “The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue,” came out 12 years ago.

Klein looked at the television. “Late night is a skill,” he said. “You have to look like the same story you’ve told six times you’re telling for the first time because the audience is hearing it for the first time.”

He ran through hosts he liked and why he liked them. Jimmy Fallon: “Nice kid, pure talent.” Carson: “Johnny was the greatest of all time.” David Letterman: “He did jokes, not political satire.” Colbert and Samantha Bee: “It’s political satire. That’s never been more important. If you do what they do in China or Russia, you’d be in the clink or dead. The proof is in the pudding.”

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Want to learn more?

To find out more about Klein’s appearance in Norfolk next month or to buy tickets, go to www.greatamericancomedyfestival.com